Monday, August 04, 2008

We built this city on stolen memories

Before its release last week, a director's cut DVD of Dark City had been rumored for years (including Roger Ebert's 2005 note that he recorded a new commentary for such a DVD). That a director's cut would result in a superior movie was almost certain, as the film begins with an infamous prologue that screams "studio interference." In 1998, audiences were introduced to Alex Proyas' landmark film with Kiefer Sutherland giving a breathy, spoilerific voice-over that ruins about half of the movie's surprises. By explicitly knowing up front that the Strangers are aliens, it erases any uncertainty about their origins which would otherwise be revealed about an hour into the story. So reviled was this introduction that it became popular for fans to tell the uninitiated to turn the sound off for the first minute. Removing this voice-over is an easy improvement, but Dark City: Director's Cut also adds about 10 more minutes of additional footage that make for a subtly (not spectacularly) better movie.

Annoying voice over aside, there is little else to complain about with Dark City. We are first introduced to a confused man awakening naked in a bathtub. He's in a hotel room, and there's a strange syringe near the bath, but his main problem is having no memory of who he is or why he's in the strange hotel room. One of those questions is answered as he walks by the front desk, the manager telling John Murdoch that his bill is overdue. More revelations will follow, with John finding out that he's an accused serial killer, he's estranged from his wife, and apparently has a history in this odd city -- which stops cold at midnight every night on the dot. But while the rest of the populace fall asleep at midnight, John is unaffected, and he is still trying to understand his "tuning" superpowers that alter physical reality through his will alone. John will find out that this city is one giant experiment conducted by the mysterious Strangers, and he is the only one who can put an end to their plan.

Dark City's memorable combination of stylish visuals, original sci-fi story and near-flawless resistance to the genre's usual cliches almost guaranteed it would be a commercial failure, then rediscovered on video. I first discovered it like many people, after Ebert surprisingly named it his favorite movie of the year and generally heaped tons of praise on it throughout the year. I've since tried to watch it every year, as Proyas' story and visuals encourage repeat viewings. What I appreciate more with each viewing are the central questions about memories, and the value we put on them. Other movies have touched on the issue of losing our memories, but what if you can't trust your memories, does that diminish their quality? The inhabitants of Dark City are ignorant of their captivity, but even with their memories being mixed and matched, they are still capable of displaying the unique human qualities that the Strangers so cherish. Do memories drive the human spirit no matter what they are, or is our vitality linked to something deeper? The Strangers, who have a communal consciousness, are obsessed with this question that has no answer.

In his director's cut, Proyas adds in small scenes that create a couple nice little subplots. Chief among these is John noticing his fingerprints, which resemble the vertigo symbols that permeate the movie. Inspector Bumstead and Mr. Book of the Strangers also pick up on this, leading both parties to suspect John has truly evolved. The problem with these scenes is that it's not readily apparent that his fingerprints are out of the ordinary; if there wasn't so much attention paid to them, I would have thought they were normal. My favorite new element is the revelation that the prostitute John meets at the automat has a daughter. At her apartment, John sees the girl peaking around a door, adding more reason for him to leave in haste. But her biggest role in the film comes later when Bumstead and Emma Murdoch find the prostitute's mutilated body, and discover the girl hiding in the house. As Emma comforts her, Bumstead finds a picture she had drawn of the Strangers. The eerie drawing becomes key to the story, as Emma and Bumstead until this point had not seen the Strangers, but will catch a glimpse of them only moments later.

Early announcements of this DVD promised new special effects, but the only enhancements I caught were some slight changes to the tuning effects, cleaning them up a little bit. There are also a few extended scenes that add more depth to Bumstead's character in particular. One little note about the packaging: the cover art is beautiful, and much more detailed than you see in this picture, but what's odd is the design on the reverse. The DVD comes in a slip package, which contains no information on the reverse, just another cool design. This has been done before, but in those cases there was at least a sticker or an insert beneath the plastic with a synopsis and list of extra features. There's nothing like that here, which is frustrating for anyone who is interested in what new extras are on the disc, or for that matter anyone unfamiliar with the movie.

Indeed there are new extras, all high quality. Ebert adds to his previous commentary, and Proyas has provided an all new track. There are also two documentaries, one focusing on the movie's production and another offering five perspectives on the movie from the likes of Proyas, the screenwriter and three critics. The documentary "Memories of Shell Beach," is excellent, with much of the cast and crew giving candid reflections on the movie from inception to its box office receipts. The common thread through all the interviews is everyone involved never cared about the movie's cold box office, because they knew from day one they were making a great movie.


Greg said...

This has been on my list of movies to re-see for a long time. I saw it in 1998 when it came out and thought it was very good but not much more. I was a bit baffled when Ebert selected it as the Best Film of the year but when no other critics took the bait I was re-assured that my feelings about the film were correct and Ebert was having another one of his four star farts that happen from time to time (The Cell, Juno, etc).

Since then however I keep hearing it touted again and again as a great sci-fi flick. And as any Cinema Styles reader knows I love sci-fi so I must see this again and a director's cut seems a good place to start. My only reservation now is that one of the reasons I was not overwhelmed by it the first time was and is a deep dislike of Keiffer Sutherland and that hasn't changed so I'll have to find some way to mentally block him out while watching it.

Adam Ross said...

I agree that Ebert has those strange moments of over-praise, there have been many favorites of his that haven't worked for me on the same level.

It took awhile for Sutherland's acting to work for me, and when I show the movie to people that's one of the first things they mention. I think his character gets better as the movie goes on, when you realize how traumatized and tortured he is. One interesting aspect of the character is how he appears perfectly normal when he shows up in Murdoch's implanted memories (near the end), meaning his physical state is a result of the Strangers.


I saw DARK CITY the first day it opened, when I was in 8th grade and I've loved it ever since.

I think it makes a movie like THE MATRIX, which I really do love, look like just a lame studio action movie.

DARK CITY has a great theme, some great design and one hell of an ending.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Joseph on this one. I also caught it on the day it opened and have remained a fan. It seems like science fiction rarely makes it to the screen without the action movie trappings (heck, that formula was already at play waaay back in A Trip to the Moon (1902)). I love the mysterious tech here, the questions about reality and how much we can trust our perception of it, humans as rats in a maze, the eternal night, etc. The look and feel is otherworldly yet as familiar as last night's nightmare. Yeah, Dark City ranks as one of the better SF pictures in my book.

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